Saturday, April 6, 2013

North Korea: A Political Primer

     Over the past month, numerous media outlets in the United States have responded to statements and posturing from inside the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) by labeling the course of events as "the crisis on the Korean peninsula", complete with the standard video footage of  goose-stepping North Korean soldiers marching in unison down Kim il-Sung Square,rocket testing , and cheering throngs of DPRK citizens appearing to be joined in unison with the mission of supporting their leader to their death if it required.

While there has undoubtedly been a substantial increase in threatening rhetoric from Pyongyang over the past few months, as well as diplomatic-military actions that should be taken seriously by it's neighbors (and of course, the United States), the question  that should be asked is actually twofold: Just how dangerous is the present situation on the Korean Peninsula, and why is the DPRK electing to take what many analysts see as provocative actions now?

While the first question posed can be answered at least to some degree by simply having an understanding of the military capabilities of the major actors in the region, the second question is perhaps more important, and requires a deeper look into the political structure of the DPRK.

The Major Political-Military Actors  within the DPRK

Kim Jong-un: The supreme leader of the DPRK since 2011.  Kim was preceded as leader  by his father, Kim Jong-il, who ruled from 1994-2011, and Jong-un's grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who founded the DPRK in 1948.  The bloodline of Kim's family has been the only leadership known to the people of North Korea since its inception, and it is important to note that while Kim Il-sung had unquestioned revolutionary credentials (at least with savvy rewrites of history, courtesy of party officials) upon his ascension to lead the DPRK following his military struggles against the occupying Japanese forces in the early half of the 20th century, both Jong-il and Jong-un have had to undergo risky power consolidation procedures in which gaining support of the military leadership was paramount to a permanent succession.  Although Kim Jong-il lacked the romantic biography of his father, Kim Il-sung implemented his succession in deliberate phases throughout the span of nearly three decades, allowing for key military leadership positions to be filled with Jong-il loyalists, as well as cultivating a personality cult that would solidify his legitimacy among North Korea's populace. Kim Jong-il did not plan his succession with the same foresight as his father, and analysts questioned for years who would actually take the reigns of the country upon his death.  While many speculated that it would be Jong-il's oldest son, Kim Jong-nam who would preside as the next DPRK leader, the bizarre episode of Jong-nam attempting to visit Tokyo's Disney World under a Dominican Passport reportedly embarrassed Jong-il to the level that he decided upon Kim Jong-un. Jong-il only had a very short time (under two years) to begin the delicate process of grooming his son as his successor, and as a result of his sudden death, was not able to fully ensure his son's smooth transition to power.

Jang Sung-Taek: One of the more acute political decisions made by Kim Jong-il before his death was to appoint his brother-in-law, Jang Sung-Taek as a behind the scenes "caretaker" of Kim Jong-un to aid in the power transition, along with Jang's wife Kim Kyong-Hui.  Jang was a long-time trusted political confidant to Jong-il, and was also in charge in leading the military units responsible for protecting the highest echelons of North Korean leadership.  Jang could be seen as a political moderate (at least in North Korean terms), as he has previously made numerous trips to Chinese cities with the mission of finding aspects of the Chinese economic system that could be implemented into the antiqued DPRK model.

Kim Kyong-Hui: Sister of the late Kim Jong-il and husband to Jang Sung-Taek who welds considerable power within the DPRK military structure, and is often considered a hard-liner who is likely one of the chief architects behind the DPRK's increasingly aggressive posture. While disappearing from view for over five years (2003-2009), she reappeared to take part in the transition role with Jong-un prior to her brother's death.  It would appear that Jang Sung-taek and Kim Kyong-hui provide a counterbalance to each other  regarding economic liberalization and military hard line stances.

North Korean Military Leadership: 
In spite of  the long-standing economic woes of the DPRK, the practice of the country's leadership has been to provide resources, incentives, and "perks" to its military leadership at the expense of economic development within the country.  As a result of this practice, support of the DPRK military is paramount to regime survival within the state.  During the initial transition phase for Kim Jong-un, the 2010 torpedo attack on a South Korean naval vessel and the North Korean artillery bombardment of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong were widely seen as moves approved by Kim Jong-il taken with the goal of securing military support for the eventual leadership transition.  North Korea's Defense Minister, Kim Kyok Sik, is believed by analysts to be a hard-liner who has unquestioned support throughout the DPRK's military structure.

So Why Now? 
Although there are myriad  factors that are likely behind the recent actions-statements coming from the DPRK, there appears to be a highly calculated method behind what could appear to be reckless military posturing.

The DPRK does not fail to vociferously oppose the annual  military joint training exercises between South Korea and the United States.  This year, however, the exercises were preceded by another DPRK underground nuclear test, as well as a series of missile tests.  Despite warnings of military action from the DPRK, the joint exercises took place without incident. The North Korean leadership has once again shown its ability to manufacture a crisis with outside forces in order to garner political support from both its domestic population, as well as its military leadership.  Jong-un has been able to use the manufactured crisis to portray himself as a confident and caring leader of the DPRK, as shown below....

As well as a capable military tactician...

These carefully crafted public relations pieces are made not only for the DPRK's public and military viewing, but for international consumption as well with a message that is becoming increasingly apparent: Kim Jong-un is in charge of the DPRK and has the support of its military.  Yet the issue remains as to why the DPRK is choosing the present time to raise the tensions to the current level.  This is where the complexities of the North Korean political system need to be understood.

Diplomatic Currency

If the DPRK does not have the intention of embarking on a military adventure that would likely spell its demise, then what is it doing? The idea of using  multilateral state talks regarding its nuclear program to extract economic concessions appear to be an impossibility due to two factors.  The first is the DPRK's public statements referring to its nuclear capabilities as the "country's life", and that it would not trade the capability for concessions.  The second is a factor that has not been widely reported in global media coverage regarding the crisis, which is the April 1st meeting of the DPRK Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang.

In this meeting, a series of laws were passed in which not only make it a crime  for DPRK officials to even negotiate the country's nuclear capability, but the laws also ensure the country's nuclear capabilities will remain intact for the foreseeable future.  Perhaps even more importantly, the DPRK coded the usage of its nuclear weapons into law as being that of a defensive nature.  Some portions of the laws include:

 "They serve the purpose of deterring and repelling the aggression and attack of the enemy against the DPRK and dealing deadly retaliatory blows at the strongholds of aggression until the world is denuclearized"

"The DPRK shall neither use nukes against the non-nuclear states nor threaten them with those weapons unless they join a hostile nuclear weapons state in its invasion and attack on the DPRK"

"The DPRK shall strive hard to defuse the danger of a nuclear war and finally build a world without nukes and fully support the international efforts for nuclear disarmament against nuclear arms race"

Upon looking at the recent laws passed within the DPRK assembly (laws that need to have the consent of the current Jong-un faction prior to being voted upon), the fog begins to lift from the decision making process in the DPRK political leadership, in which the Jong-un camp is stating to the military leadership:

"The country's nuclear weapons program (a primary deterrent in the country's resistance to foreign military action as well as source of pride within the military) will not be negotiated away and will remain a major aspect of the DPRK's military capabilities........ you can place your trust in us"

Yet many analysts may pose the question: "If the North Korean leadership is now stating that it does not wish to even discuss its nuclear program, what does it have left to bargain with?" The DPRK's solution could be one in which it looks to "print diplomatic currency", much in the same fashion that countries left without capital print physical currency in the wake of an economic crisis. The DPRK leadership could discuss the following in the near future (all of which were "diplomatic currency" that it did not hold prior to 2013):

1. The reestablishment of communication between the DPRK and ROK-US military forces at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) checkpoint on the North-South Korean border

2. Stating that it will not resume production at its Yongbyon nuclear facility

3. Cease long-range missile testing

4. Negotiate a resumption of its 1953 armistice agreement with South Korea

All of these potential talking points were made possible by the DPRK by creating a crisis scenario in which it could take away such agreements in order to bring them back when the political climate was suitable.

Even if and when  Kim Jong-un and his faction elect to lower tensions with outside actors, it will not be a rapid process.  Recent United States military actions in response to DPRK statements and actions have included short-term responses (the stationing of F-22 Raptor's in South Korea and missile interceptor systems on its military bases in Guam) to long-term (announcement of missile interceptor systems to be placed in Alaska estimated to be in place by 2015) will not likely be reversed anytime soon.  The political temperature has reached a point to where it will take a series of measures on both sides to lower it to acceptable levels.  In the likely scenario in which tensions do gradually ease between the DPRK and the United States, it will likely be Kim Jong-un who scores the greatest political victory---as he will be portrayed to the people of North Korea, as well as its military--as the fearless leader who successfully stopped American aggression towards their beloved homeland (albeit aggression that was masterfully concocted by the DPRK leadership).  Yet one question remains unanswered.  Although North Korean posturing has taken place in various forms over the years to secure its leadership's standing domestically, why has Jong-un's faction taken it to such dangerously high levels?  The answer may lie in the leadership's long term plans of economic liberalization.

A Dangerous Domestic Game: 

In order to raise North Korea's economy from the dead, the Jong-un faction realizes that changes must be made.  Before such changes are made there are two factors to be considered.  The first is that military loyalty and support must be unquestioned.  Any changes in the economic system could jeopardize the current "military first" arrangement that is in place of monetary allocation given towards the military compared to the rest of North Korean sectors.  Before any changes take place in the current economic system in North Korea, the military leadership would have to feel secure that its place in the DPRK's societal pecking order would remain unchanged.  The Jong-un faction has looked to secure this loyalty judging by its recent actions.

Secondly, the most rapidly growing sector of the North Korean economy is not in its agricultural or industrial sectors, but rather, in an area in which it is difficult to measure in either monetary or social terms: the black market.

Heavy unregulated economic activity within the borders of the DPRK likely sends shivers down the spine of the leadership, as it is increasingly losing its ability to monitor the daily activities of its citizens, as well as the flow of unfiltered information both entering and leaving North Korea.  The flourishing of the North Korean black market has taken place primarily around the areas of its border with China at the Yalu River. It is here that cellular phones, radios, DVD and VHS recordings (many which show a flourishing South Korea), and nearly anything else with monetary value is available to an ever-growing black market consumer base.  While attempting to put the genie back into the bottle completely is not likely for the DPRK ruling class, it must at least attempt to provide an economic alternative to its citizens if it is to stave off a rapidly growing alternative economy.

Author and North Korean expert Bradley Martin, stated a similar point in an article printed yesterday:

"Some foreign analysts say his theory is that the nuclear deterrent gives him sufficient job security that he can economize on the conventional military and plow the resulting peace dividend into improvement of the civilian economy."

Having his uncle Jang Sung-taek by his side certainly raises the possibility that such thoughts may be behind the Jong-un camp's rationale behind such recent moves.  Additionally, the fact remains that although the rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang recently has been colorful and fierce, unlike past cases of tension between the DPRK and its rivals, there has not yet been a shot fired (unless one wishes to count the DPRK's nuclear testing and missile tests, which would not be unreasonable).  Tensions do remain high, however, and it would not take a major incident to light the tinderbox, resulting in a potentially terrifying military scenario---heightened tensions tend not to allow for smaller mistakes or misunderstandings to go without a response.  Yet if the Jong-un regime feels that it has sufficiently made it point to its domestic audience--both civilian and military--then it could choose to gradually lower the temperature and declare itself the victor in the diplomatic standoff.  Such an outcome would be quietly welcomed by Washington, Seoul, and Beijing.  And perhaps in the not-so-distant future, the people of North Korea would benefit economically as well.